On Monday morning, Pedro Villalobos stood in front of his new boss, Margaret Moore, the Travis County district attorney. The young lawyer, who wore a dark blue suit and a tie adorned with sunflowers, was a little nervous. As a small crowd of staff members from the DA’s office watched, Moore asked Villalobos and another lawyer standing next to him to raise their right hands. Villalobos stared directly at Moore as he solemnly swore to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this state.”
Moore smiled. “Congratulations,” she said. “You’re mine now.”
Moore hugged Villalobos, who had, until this moment, worked for the county attorney, prosecuting misdemeanors in Austin. Now he would be handling felony cases, going after accused drug dealers, rapists, and murderers. It would be a huge moment for any early-career attorney, but it was an especially consequential day for the 28-year-old Villalobos, who is an undocumented immigrant.
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He is also one of the best young lawyers in the state. Just last month, he was given the “Prosecutor Award for Excellence in Criminal Law” by the Austin Bar Association. “He’s an impressive young man,” said Moore later. “At the DA’s office, we look for trial strength and personality, people with good, balanced judgment. We don’t emphasize seeking convictions, we emphasize seeking justice. Pedro fits the bill perfectly. He shines.”
Villalobos is a Dreamer. Brought to the U.S. by his parents from Mexico when he was three, he lived in the country without legal status until 2013, when he received a work permit through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), an Obama initiative that has allowed 900,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as kids—known as Dreamers—to postpone deportation and work in the country legally.
But Villalobos is in jeopardy. One of President Trump’s earliest moves was to rescind DACA, arguing that Obama’s act was illegal. Various federal courts have prevented the president from scuttling the program, but earlier this year the Supreme Court agreed to review DACA’s legality. In November the court heard oral arguments, and a decision is expected in the spring. Many legal observers think the court, which has a conservative majority thanks to two Trump appointments, is likely to throw out DACA. Though Trump has called on Congress to fix the program, there seems to be little appetite from the president or Congress to actually do something.
If DACA is scrapped and not replaced, Villalobos’s work permit will expire in 2021 and he will no longer be able to work as a prosecutor. He could also be deported, along with hundreds of thousands of other DACA recipients. The fact that an essential member of the Texas legal establishment—a man who enforces laws and protects citizens—could be legally thrown out of the country fills many at the courthouse with dread. County attorney David Escamilla, Villalobos’s boss for three years, said, “He’s no different from any other young lawyer working in the courthouse. You can line him up with thirty others his age and never see any indication that he’s anything but American.”
Villalobos certainly feels that way. In his spare time, he goes to movies at the Alamo Drafthouse with friends and binge watches shows like The Crown and Watchmen. He loves to cook Mexican dishes like mole and chile rellenos but is also experimenting with Asian cuisine. He collects LPs by classic rock bands like Fleetwood Mac and the Beatles. He takes Ladybird and Oliver, his two Pembroke Welsh corgis, for walks through his West Austin neighborhood. “No offense,” friends like to kid him, “but you’re the whitest person I know.”
Though Villalobos can laugh about that, he turns serious when talking about the central irony of his life. “I’m an American in every way except on paper,” he said. “I call myself a Texan. This is my home.”
On the morning of December 12, Villalobos spent his final hours with the county attorney engaged in his usual endeavor: the daily grind of justice. County courts are where many people first come into contact with the criminal justice system. Much of a county prosecutor’s work is figuring out which cases should be dealt with harshly—for example, prison time—and which should be dealt with by alternative methods, such as treatment or probation. For the past fifteen months, Villalobos had worked family violence cases, representing the state of Texas against alleged wife beaters and child abusers, protecting innocent victims.
On this morning, he sat in a chair at the prosecutor’s table in County Court Number 4 while a procession of defense attorneys lined up to discuss their clients and the business of family court—plea deals, protective orders, treatment programs. Everyone’s goal was to resolve the case without going to a trial. The defense lawyers were all older than Villalobos, some by three decades. One had long gray hair and a yellow suit jacket, another a silver mustache and a well-worn gray coat.
Villalobos stood out in the courtroom. He was dapper, wearing a dark suit, red tie, and a determined expression on his wide face, which is framed by dark–rimmed glasses. His hair is styled in an uppercut pompadour, buzzed on the sides and slicked back on top. He wears a retainer, which, when he smiles, makes him look even younger. He is clearly a courtroom favorite, shaking hands and sharing conversations with attorneys and staff. Judges also love him. “He has a formal, professional manner I don’t see in a lot of people his age,” said Judge Brandy Mueller, who has worked with Villalobos numerous times.
Villalobos was born in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and after his parents snuck him over the border when he was a toddler, he grew up in Houston, where his father washed dishes and his mother bused tables. The couple wanted for plenty, but they managed to scrape together enough to put him in private prep school. Villalobos thrived, then was accepted at the University of Texas at Austin, where he became engrossed in politics, doing volunteer work on several Democratic campaigns.
In 2012, DACA went into force, opening up his future. He got into UT law school and graduated with honors. He was hired by the county attorney’s office, working his way up from case intake to DWIs to the family violence section. To communicate effectively with juries, he learned about things like cycles of violence, and power and control dynamics. It worked. In his three years, he went before juries thirty times and won all but three cases. “The way I view it,” he said, “is that I’m a teacher. I have to teach the community when they come in here about these dynamics.” He found a real sense of purpose in defending victims and in keeping the community safe.
That wasn’t all he did. Because of a surge in family violence cases in rapidly growing Austin, his boss, county attorney Escamilla, decided to restructure to better handle the workload. Villalobos helped reorganize the office into new trial teams, then he began collecting data on how the changes were working. Villalobos was eventually tapped to lead his team.
Later in the fall, a position came open in the district attorney’s office—a major step up—and Villalobos jumped at the chance. To his surprise, his citizenship status didn’t come up once in the job interviews. The Travis County courthouse is a tight-knit community, and everyone at the DA’s office knew all about his situation. “It may sound odd,” said Moore, “but I never thought of it.” To her, his citizenship was irrelevant; she just wanted the best person for the job. That happened to be Villalobos.
Villalobos will start out in the juvenile division, but he’s eager to move up. “As a prosecutor I want to grow to learn every aspect of criminal law,” he said. “One day I hope I can do a murder trial. It’s a natural progression. From a professional perspective, you have to be good at your job to take these cases. As a prosecutor you’re going up against the best defense lawyers. I like going up against the best. I learn more from them than I do from my wins.”
Almost every day Villalobos reads or hears some kind of anti-immigrant sentiment in the media, but he says that his ambitions have nothing to do with trying to prove his worth. “I was educated in Texas schools, went to UT, graduated with honors from law school, now I’m prosecuting felonies. If you don’t understand that there are people like me in all aspects of life who were brought to the U.S. very young and are now trying to make a life for themselves, I don’t know how I can convince you.”
Villalobos’s old boss sees him as emblematic of many young Dreamers. “Pedro is the face of why we need genuine immigration reform,” said Escamilla. “He’s not doing this to get rich. He’s doing it to help his community—he’s doing it for the good it brings. What more could we ask for from our young people?”
Villalobos knows he’ll have to develop a contingency plan if he loses his DACA status, but for now he refuses to worry about something that’s out of his control. Besides, he’s got plenty to do at his new job to keep him busy. In the meantime, the legal community has closed ranks around him. “I’d be horrified if this country is stupid enough to let someone like him be deported,” said Moore.